Clinton County in line for new Judicial Center

Posted March 11, 2020 at 1:44 pm

Clinton County seems to be in line for a state funded Judicial Center through the judicial branch’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and Clinton Fiscal Court took a major step to make that happen at a special call meeting with AOC officials last week.

The special call meeting was held Tuesday afternoon, March 3, in the upstairs courtroom of the courthouse.

Although state legislative funding for such a project in Clinton County at the Frankfort end has apparently been ongoing for a while, it was something new to most county officials and the public at last week’s meeting, when Danny Rhoades, Executive Director of Facilities for the AOC explained the project.

Magistrates apparently received a copy of an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the Judicial Branch and AOC at an earlier meeting, but the issue was not discussed until last week’s call meeting.

The AOC officials and court members fielded several pertinent questions about the project for over an hour prior to eventually approving a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Administrative Office of the Courts and the county.

The $17.4 million project, which would entail a 30,000 square foot facility to be chosen by a committee, would be totally funded and upkeep paid by the Judicial Branch, and there were no votes against the agreement, although a couple of magistrates had reservations about the economic impact it may have in the long run for the county, once judicial related offices are moved from the courthouse and the state would no longer pay rent for that space.

The two-thirds of the court members that were in favor of the project seemed to feel it was a needed project, especially for having a secure facility which the courthouse does not totally provide.

Rhoades also told the court that offices now rented by the AOC in the courthouse could be rented out and that a new judicial center may have a positive affect by helping bring in additional businesses.

It was also noted the facility would be constructed inside the city limits.

Apparently funding for the project was in the Judicial Branch budget, which was to move out of committee in Frankfort last Thursday, March 5 to the full House of Representatives.

The total project scope calls for a 30,000 sq. ft. facility at a total projected cost of $17,435,000.

In terms of the MOU project, “General Fund support of $1,661,200 is contained in the Local Facilities Fund budget in each fiscal year use allowance payments (20-year period). Construction in Clinton County of a new judicial facility…to accommodate the Kentucky Court of Justice functions which include but are not limited to Circuit Court, Family Court, District Court, Circuit Court Clerk, Drug Court, Pretrial Services and Juvenile Services. The current courthouse is deficient in space and is not configured for safe, effective, and efficient Court of Justice operations.”

The projects cost to the judicial branch includes land purchase, if necessary, site survey, preparation and demolition, construction costs, security costs, project contingency, financing costs associated with bonds, bond counsel and trustee fees and professional and architectural fees and services.

According to Rhoades, construction on a site, if Clinton County is actually approved and funded, would not begin until the year 2022.

County Judge/Executive Ricky Craig asked the officials how a site location would be chosen.

Rhoades said that in May of this year, they would know if the county was included and the Chief Justice would issue a “Notice to Proceed.”

There would be a committee formed for that task, led by the county judge and would include, among others, a district and circuit court judge and circuit clerk, with a total of six persons on the committee.

He also noted that a public hearing would be required and people would be given a chance to offer property to sell, but added the state, by statute, could not pay above appraised market value for any property. However, if a property owner chose, they may ask for an independent appraiser and the committee would decide the fair market value.

Once property is located and secured, then begins financing and bidding the project as well as the sale of bonds.

When questioned by Magistrate Ray Marcum about the AOC using condemnation proceedings to obtain property, which he would be opposed to, Rhoades noted that was highly unlikely and only done on rare occasions.

During the discussion, it was also noted the facility would likely be a two-story building with the capability of video-conferencing court proceedings, which may save some travel time in transporting inmates in out-of-county facilities back and forth to court, depending on the situation.

If a Clinton County Judicial Center is actually constructed here, the AOC would continue using the courthouse and a couple of other county buildings where judicial offices are located until they take occupancy of the new center.

Also during that time, they would continue paying rent to the county based on square foot space used for judicial purposes. At present, the rent paid to the county is approximately $80,000 per year for that office space.

Apparently after the 20-year bond period, the judicial system would reimburse the county for space.

Magistrate Jerry Lowhorn voiced concern about what the county would do to make up that lost revenue from rent after a new Judicial Center is occupied, noting that over a 20 year period, at the current $80,000 annually, it could cost the county $1.6 million during that two-decade period.

A couple of magistrates, including Lowhorn and Terry Buster, said they felt a new jail in Clinton County was needed first.

Assistant County Attorney Gary Little questioned the AOC about the ‘driving force’ for the need for a Judicial Center as well as asking whether there was funding for upgrades that could be made to the courthouse.

Rhoades emphasized that security for everyone that uses the courthouse, including those in the judicial system, judges and patrons, was the top priority, as well as added space for the offices that are now being used at the courthouse.

Some noted the courthouse, and the manner it is constructed, is not well equipped for safety, especially on court dates, and with no exit from the judges chambers on the west side of the courthouse, also created a possible fire hazard as well as a safety concern.

Magistrate Marcum noted it was a tough choice, with the county gaining a $17 million facility at no cost that could be a boost to the county, while also giving up 20 years rent money if space couldn’t be leased.

Attorney Little also asked who decided which counties needed a Judicial Center.

Rhoades noted the AOC made that decision based on ranking and in 2011, the counties were “re-ranked” and since that time, four other counties have seen Judicial Center’s constructed. He said Clinton County was in the top five on the list and indicated funds were in the state budget.

Clinton Circuit Clerk Jake Staton said he had mixed feelings about a new Judicial Center and possibly moving out of the courthouse. He noted he liked being around people and saw many at the courthouse at work, but at the new facility he would mainly only see co-workers most of the time.

But, as the common thread of the discussion, Staton also noted the need for added safety and security for those inside the courtroom, especially around his office and the courtroom and added in an emergency situation, people could only get out “on one side” with the west wing stairs being closed off.

Although he said safety at the courthouse was as safe now as it has been in his 19 years of service, it was probably still insufficient.

Clinton County Sheriff Jeff Vincent, who noted that during circuit court proceedings he always kept three staff in the courtroom at all times, said, “the courtroom is way to small for a circuit court jury trial.”

County Judge/Executive Ricky Craig also questioned the AOC reps about a situation where the magistrates may decide they did not want the Judicial Center, could the state proceed with the project anyway.

The officials noted they could not say they would move on, indicating they may proceed anyway, but also left open the possibility of moving to another location, without giving a specific yes or no answer.

Rhoades told the court that if the project is approved and funded by the legislature, the Project Development Board aforementioned, would come back in the next biennium (2022) to make an offer, if not, another (county) could get it.

Magistrate Buster recommended talking to other counties who have such a facility and also said he had talked to one person in neighboring Cumberland County who had indicated they wished they had not have gotten one.

During the discussion, AOC officials and others noted that at least two judges, Circuit Judge David L. Williams and District Judge Scarlett Latham, were totally behind seeing a Judicial Center constructed in Clinton County, primarily for the safety issues discussed.

Staton noted that people “are going to grumble unless they understand they are not paying for it. From the way the courthouse facility is designed, it’s just a matter of time before something happens.”

When questioned about renovations that may be made to help security at the courthouse, Rhoades said that after being showed the facility, there are few issues that can be addressed at the courthouse.

Magistrate Mickey Riddle, given the short notice of time and that the full House in Frankfort was to get the budget request last week, noted the next regular meeting would be too late to act, also noting that the issue of upgrades to the courthouse had already been discussed.

Riddle then made the motion to approve the Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) between the AOC and county. The motion was seconded by magistrate Johnny Russell and passed with magistrates Marcum and Gary Ferguson voting yes. Magistrate Buster abstained.

(Note: Magistrate Lowhorn had to leave about half way into the one-hour and 15-minute session, but noted prior to departing that he would like to wait and see what the voters in his district felt about the issue before taking action. He was not present during the time of the vote.)

More details on the proposed Clinton County Judicial Center project will be published as information becomes available.

Also at the start of the special meeting, the court, on separate votes, approved three cash transfers, including: $20,000 to the jail checking account; $30,000 into the general checking account; and $20,000 into the ambulance account, all from the Occupational Fund checking account.

The next regular meeting of Clinton Fiscal Court is scheduled for March 19 at 5 p.m. in the upstairs courtroom of the courthouse and is open to the public.